Why Alomar’s home run off Eckersley changed everything

Blue Jays star Roberto Alomar watches as his home run in the ninth inning of 1992 American League Championship game. (Eric Risberg/AP)

No, sitting there, you did not feel it coming.

Watching from the press box at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, the fourth game of the 1992 American League Championship Series seemed to be proceeding according to script — a very familiar script for the visiting Toronto Blue Jays.

The fact that they were leading the Oakland Athletics two games to one in the series — not to mention the fact that they had already won a game in those hostile confines after splitting the first two at the then-Skydome — wasn’t enough to shake the memory of the franchise’s limited and depressing post-season history.

Entering the eighth inning, the Jays trailed the A’s 6–1. Toronto’s starter, Jack Morris, brought in as a free agent to win games just like this one, had surrendered five runs in a little over three innings of work.

If needed, Oakland could call on Dennis Eckersley, the best closer in the game, to nail things down at the end. Then it would be series tied, momentum shifted, a familiar tale playing out to its seemingly inevitable conclusion.

Programming Alert: Blue Jays Classics
Watch Game 4 of the 1992 ALCS on Mon., March 23, at 8:00 p.m. ET/5:00 p.m. PT on Sportsnet.

Before the top of the eighth, yours truly was tasked with making a dinner reservation for the visiting Toronto baseball writers at an elegant joint in San Francisco. This one was over. Not that we were defeatist by nature, but we’d seen this show a few times before.

In 1985, the first year the Jays made the playoffs, they led the Kansas City Royals three games to one in the first-ever best-of-seven ALCS. Had it been the old best-of-five format (the wild card and the division series were still off in the future), that magnificent Jays’ team, just eight years removed from expansion, would have moved on to face the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.

And had that happened, they might well have won it. And had they won it, their ace, Dave Stieb, might have ridden that showcase all the way to Cooperstown.

But if you are a student of history, you know what happened instead: a collapse that ended with Jim Sundberg’s definitive wind-blown bases-clearing triple in Game 7 (it seemed the wind always blew at Exhibition Stadium) against Stieb, who, following two brilliant starts, had run out of gas.

The banner headline in the Globe and Mail the next morning: “They Blew It.”

There were subsequent years when that team should have broken through, especially 1987, George Bell’s MVP season, which brought the epic collapse to the Tigers in the final week of the season. That one hurt, and that one even more firmly established the knee-jerk sentiment that the Jays just couldn’t win when it counted.

A berth in the 1989 ALCS was a happy surprise. They were so far out of it when Jimy Williams was fired as manager and hitting coach Cito Gaston reluctantly took over as his replacement (Pat Gillick wanted Lou Piniella, who was working on the Yankees’ broadcasts at the time, but George Steinbrenner wouldn’t release him from his contract) that just making the playoffs was triumph enough.

Once they got there, they were rolled by the A’s in five games in the ALCS, with Eckersley and future Jays Dave Stewart and Rickey Henderson establishing themselves firmly as Toronto’s nemeses. Oakland went on to sweep the San Francisco Giants in the earthquake-interrupted World Series.

About the 1991 ALCS: The less said, the better. The franchise-altering trade that sent Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff to San Diego for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter had changed the team’s chemistry, but not the final results. The Jays started a knuckleballer in Game 1, Tom Candiotti, who inexplicably decided he didn’t want to throw his knuckler, with predictable results. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Twins started Morris, who began the myth-making run that would end with his magnificent Game 7 start in the World Series.

So on to ’92, against those all-too-familiar A’s, who to a man seemed to have adopted the better-than-you/smarter-than-you attitude of their manager, Tony LaRussa.

But why wouldn’t the A’s be confident?

Eckersley came on in the eighth with two on, a run across and nobody out. He gave up two more runs on consecutive singles to make make it 6–4, but eventually struck out Ed Sprague to end the inning.

To celebrate, Eckersley performed a full-body fist pump on the mound, then pointed an imaginary pistol at the Jays’ dugout, fired, and blew smoke away from the barrel.

The Jays’ players were enraged, but the only way they were going to shut him up was to beat him, which was no small order. This was the 1992 American League Cy Young winner and MVP. And this was a team that had won 81 of the previous 82 games it had led into the ninth inning.

You need to absorb all of that to really know the meaning of the moment. You need to understand how Jays’ fans had learned to feel all hopes were false hopes.

After Oakland went scoreless in their half of the eight, the Jays came to bat. Then, with Devon White on board, Roberto Alomar stepped to the plate. Batting left handed, his swing was sweet and decisive and everyone knew it was gone the second he made contact — knew it was out of the ballpark even before he raised his fists in celebration.

That didn’t win it – just tied it. The Jays didn’t push the decisive run across the plate until the 11th. And they lost the next game in Oakland. The clincher had to wait until the series shifted back to Toronto for Game 6.

But Alomar’s home run changed everything. It erased the history and altered the destiny of a franchise. You can look it up.

And we didn’t make our dinner that night.

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